Growing up, we probably knew a little more about the Holocaust, WWII, and the Dutch Underground than most. Our family friends included many Dutch and Latvian immigrants, all of them had stories. Let me tell you about a very special person in my life and part of his story.
My dad, Joe Vander Vlist, was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan to Dutch immigrant parents. My grandmother, longing for the “old country” convinced the family to rent their little home and temporarily move back to Rotterdam, The Netherlands when my dad was about to start second grade. School didn’t go well. Joe wasn’t fluent in Dutch and, unfortunately, he was left-handed – still a sin in old-world Rotterdam. He dropped out of school in the sixth grade. Germany occupied Rotterdam at that point. Young boys were conscripted into Hitler’s Youth and that was one road Joe was not going to take. He left home having just turned 15 years old, his whereabouts to be unknown to his parents for the safety of them and his Dutch Underground cell outside of Rotterdam for the rest of the war.
While in the Dutch Underground, his missions were directed by the British MI5. Later, when the US entered the war, direction came from the US OSS (precursor to the CIA). Missions varied from picking up the occupants of downed planes, intercepting German communications, raiding German food ration lines to steal ration books and get them to those that they knew who were hiding Jews in the Rotterdam area. Most in Rotterdam knew of the Holocaust, what was happening in concentration camps and unfortunately, like now, there was a certain percentage of the population that were truth deniers.
Joe was captured twice by the Nazis, imprisoned once, and released at Christmas. The second time he and a couple of his brothers in arms were captured, put in a boxcar bound for the concentration camp at Buchenwald near Weimar, Germany. Jews were the primary target for residency and death, but also the Poles, the Slavs and Romanians, suspected communists, the physically or mentally ill, homosexuals, and political prisoners (no doubt the classification of Joe). Knowing his fate, and having learned at an early age from two older rowdy brothers how to jump off a moving train in Grand Rapids, he convinced his bothers-in-arms to jump off the boxcar as it was rounding a curve. Joe survived. He lost his brothers-in-arms, something that would haunt him for years as well as the frostbitten toes. He was deep within Germany. It was winter and he walked back to Rotterdam rejoining his Underground cell.
He considered himself fortunate to be a part of his cell that joined the American forces, once the Americans joined the war effort, in the liberation of the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen, often described as “hell on earth.” This was where Anne Frank, resident of nearby Amsterdam was held. It’s estimated that over 50,000 souls were killed in this place of horrors. Over 13,000 died after liberation from the effects of their time there.
After four long years of the war effort, as an American citizen in the Dutch Underground, Joe returned to Grand Rapids Michigan. Thinking about what to do next, he joined the US Army as a Military Police with hopes of going to the South Pacific to see a part of the world he had not yet seen. But that was not to be. During those four years in the Dutch Underground, he became fluent in Dutch and German, conversant in French and Italian. With those skills he was assigned to riding the rails as an MP during the reconstruction of Europe.
As for being a sixth-grade dropout, Joe scored a job at Hekman Biscuit Company, later Keebler Company, rising to manage the plant in Grand Rapids supervising 11,00 people. Many of them had stories of their own from the war. He designed machines, wrote technical manuals for the engineers, was instrumental to the Kellogg Pop Tart R&D team, and after retirement, enjoyed traveling the US and Canada as a consultant. ‘
Would he do it all again given the circumstances? Yes indeed. With these stories and more, he wanted us to know that we live in the greatest country on earth and to appreciate the liberties we enjoy. He would tell us that it’s important to do the right thing – and for him, that included risking his life for those he did not know. He would say, “Never Forget”.
Read more about Rotterdam and the Holocaust:
Irene Butter’s book, “Shores Beyond Shores” speaks of her time at Bergen-Belsen The Hunger Winter: Fighting Famine in the Occupied Netherlands, 1944-1945, by Ingrid de Zwarte The Diary of Anne Frank, by Anne Frank